Another cat fight between chick lit and literary lit is brewing. This time the focus is on Melissa Bank’s new book, The Wonder Spot. Bank is the author of the 1999 best-selling story collection A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing.
The first stone (or claw swipe?) was thrown by Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of the recently-released best-seller, Prep, which has been lauded for its literariness. Sittenfeld disses Banks thoroughly in a New York Times Book review:
“To suggest that another woman’s ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut – doesn’t the term basically bring down all of us? And yet, with ‘’The Wonder Spot,'’ it’s hard to resist. A chronicle of the search for personal equilibrium and Mr. Right, Melissa Bank’s novel is highly readable, sometimes funny and entirely unchallenging; you’re not one iota smarter after finishing it.
I’m as resistant as anyone else to the assumption that because a book’s author is female and because that book’s protagonist is a woman who actually cares about her own romantic future, the book must fall into the chick-lit genre.
So it’s not that I find Bank’s topic lightweight; it’s that Bank writes about it in a lightweight way.”
Jennifer Weiner, who proudly admits her books (Good In Bed, Little Earthquakes) are chick-lit, is offering up her own incisive critique of Sittenfeld’s motives on her blog, Snarkspot. In short, Sittenfeld is disappointed that her literary debut didn’t win her comparisons to the hot young male authors currently out there like Jonathan Safran Foer.
“Thus, Curtis Sittenfeld’s quote-unquote review of THE WONDER SPOT – a nastier-than-it-needed-to-be takedown in which the book is dismissed as lightweight, inconsequential fluff -- is less about the book, or its author, than it is about Sittenfeld’s anxiety about how her own work has been perceived.
Think about it. Sittenfeld's young, she’s educated (Stanford and that obligatory Iowa MFA), she taught English at St. Albans, published in all the right places (Salon, The New York Times) and was reviewed and profiled, or both, in all of them as well.
But when her book went out into the world, was it perceived as high-minded literature, a la the Jonathans (Franzen, Safran Foer), or sparkling satire a la the Toms (Perrotta, Wolfe?)It was not.
In fact, I’d bet that many readers picked up PREP not because they were hoping for the edifying, educational, improving literary experience Sittenfeld so clearly believes she provided, but because the way the book was sold – from its coyly come-hither cover to the gimmick of including Sittenfeld’s high-school yearbook shot with the press kit – promised THE NANNY DIARIES, only in prep school: a dishy, entertaining glimpse behind the velvet rope (or grosgrain belt) into the lives of privileged elites.”
Weiner really nails it with this observation:
“The more I think about the review, the more I think about the increasingly angry divide between ladies who write literature and chicks who write chick lit, the more it seems like a grown-up version of the smart versus pretty games of years ago; like so much jockeying for position in the cafeteria and mocking the girls who are nerdier/sluttier/stupider than you to make yourself feel more secure about your own place in the pecking order.
And while we’re performing the online equivalent of pulling each other’s hair and writing mean things about each other’s work on the virtual bathroom walls, men are still getting the majority of reviews in major papers and men are still penning the majority of the pieces in The New Yorker and influential magazines.”
ON A LIGHTER NOTE
I got to see a rough cut of the movie The Darwin Awards last night at Dolby Studios in San Francisco. The movie, starring Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder, is directed by Bay Area native Finn Taylor. The Darwin Awards are actual awards that “salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally kill themselves in really stupid ways. Of necessity, this honor is generally bestowed posthumously.”
The movie is a hoot, using actual stupid stunts as part of the narrative. It’s pulled along by Fiennes, who plays a fired San Francisco police officer named Burroughs (of the William variety) who still wants to capture the serial killer that has eluded authorities for years. The killer turns out to be a wannabe Beat poet, and Taylor shot scenes of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Bookstore. Lots of literary references throughout.